The Ecstasy of Steve McQueen’s ‘Lovers Rock’ (NYFF58)

“How are they still awake?” I asked as I came to the end of Steve McQueen’s sumptuous and confounding Lovers Rock, the opener of the 58th New York Film Festival this past week. McQueen’s film plunges the viewer into the sensory experience of a house party in 1980 London as we drink, smoke, and dance into the morning.

Lovers Rock is part of McQueen’s Small Axe series, and will be paired with Mangrove and Red, White, and Blue, programmed at the festival. But it’s also a gorgeous standalone piece chronicling the emotional and spiritual progression of the house party as teenagers from London’s West Indian community gather to dance, drink, smoke, and fall in love; it also tells, with minimal dialogue, of the developing romance between Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and Franklyn (Micheal Ward). This is not a film about plot or characterization—it’s about emotion, spirituality, and the depth of connection permitted by music and by the ambience of the party itself.

Lovers Rock follows the arc of the party, from the testing of sound equipment, the preparation of food, and the women dressing in their rooms, through the early flirtation, the progression of dance and desire, to final, ecstatic celebration. There is danger too—Martha is followed around by Bammy (Daniel Francis-Swaby) who eventually attempts to rape Cynthia (Ellis George); Patty (Shaniqua Okwok) departs after Martha abandons her for Franklyn; Martha’s cousin Clifton (Kedar Williams-Stirling) steals coins to cover his admission and angers the bouncer. Outside, young white men loiter less than a block away, the danger and violence of whiteness palpable without ever dominating the scenes.

But while there is a basic plot, McQueen’s camera is more interested in the arc of the music and dance, the passion of flirtation, the development of character and culture through image, song, and movement. The women dominate the dance early on, moving together, choosing and rejecting partners. The spiritual and emotional essence of music generally, and reggae in particular, comes to the fore as the film proceeds, with pop songs melding into romance and finally to aggressive ecstasy. “Silly Dream” develops into a chant replete with spiritual warmth, less about a particular person than a particular moment, an instant in the midst of social celebration in which the entire room has become emotionally and spiritually in tune. McQueen’s camera wanders the dance floor to document swaying bodies, entwined hands, half-glimpsed faces, and the complement between clothing and movement, plunging the viewer into the experience of the party itself and expanding, in turn, on the spiritual experience of cinema.  

This inherent spirituality of the party contrasts with occasional uses of Christian iconography—a man carrying a collapsible cross passes the busses that Martha takes; Martha’s room, from which she has to climb to even go to the party, is full of religious images, a humorous commentary as her mother calls her to go to church in the film’s denouement. Organized Christianity cannot compete with the ecstasy of reggae.  

There is also a gendered element to the development of the film’s spiritual and emotional essence. The women dominate many scenes early on, eventually ceding the floor to the men for a “marching song” that establishes the political and spiritual resonance of reggae and of the party itself. In this, Lovers Rock has some referentiality to Franco Rosso’s 1980 film Babylon, a politically charged narrative about a reggae artist and the political, religious, and social implications of reggae in London. While less boldly political in its aims, Lovers Rock engages with similar elements of the West Indian and Rasta youth community in London, most especially in the evocation of spiritual ecstasy as political statement.

Lovers Rock succeeds in immersing the viewer in its time period, its music, and the experience of West Indian youth. There is a palpable joy at its base that permits the viewer to experience the sensation of the party; you can almost smell the sweat, the alcohol, the copious amounts of marijuana. It’s a sensory experience, of being in a particular place and time that is ultimately ephemeral but that, thanks to the solidity of cinema itself, can be experienced even by those who were not there.

Lovers Rock is now showing at the New York Film Festival.

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